Note: an audio version will be available for this sermon, hopefully within a week.
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
On September 11, 2001, the Islamic terrorist group Al-Qaeda attacked the United States with hijacked airplanes. This attack caused the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to collapse, caused damage to other buildings, and claimed the lives of approximately 3000 people.
On December 14, 2012, a lone gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut and opened fire. He took the lives of 20 children ages 6 to 7 and the lives of 6 adults.
When we remember and compare these two news stories, we don’t see any similarities between them. One was terrorism, one was a young man acting alone. One was a grand scale attack, one was an elementary school. One killed thousands, one killed a couple dozen people.
And yet there was one similarity. In both events, many Christians believed these were acts of God. Some pastors even preached that these tragedies brought about by God. One article on rightwingwatch.org says that one pastor claimed both tragedies were “‘gracious’ acts of divine punishment.”[i]
After the Sandy Hook tragedy, one member of the Westboro Baptist Church stated on Twitter “Westboro will picket Sandy Hook elementary school to sing praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment.”[ii]
An article on Christianity Today speaks of how Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell – both well-known pastors - claimed the 9/11 attacks were God’s wrath on abortion and promiscuity.[iii]
When you think about it, it is understandable how some people could make the assumption that these tragedies were God’s punishment. After all, it is a common occurrence we see in the Bible – God striking people down for not obeying him. A group of people sin and do not repent, and God wipes them out. A lot of the stories contained within the pages of scripture seem to show God as an angry, wrathful, vengeful father – punishing his children through death and destruction.
We see this alluded to in our text this morning from First Corinthians when Paul speaks of the people who were following Moses. These people had been baptized. They ate and drank the same spiritual manna and water. And yet God was not pleased with many of them and struck them down because of their sin.
So it makes sense that many people today still hold to this belief that God is an angry, vengeful father. The twin towers falling 15 years ago at the World Trade Center - it was God’s wrath on a sinful America. A gunman killing 26 people in a school – it was God’s wrath on a sinful America. Even when natural tragedy strikes, such as floods and hurricanes, many Christians proclaim that it is God’s vengeance on those people for living in sin.
Even if we don’t pin a tragedy on God’s wrath, we still find other ways to point our finger at him. If we have an illness, or other hardship, we claim it is God testing us. When we watch a loved one suffer every day, we say it is all part of God’s plan.
No matter how you spin it – whether it’s God’s wrath, God’s plan, or God testing us – each of these assumptions make God out to be a not-so-pleasant person.
And yet, as human beings, we find it necessary to do this. We find it necessary for there to be a reason behind every tragedy. We need an explanation for why bad things happen. God, as our all-powerful father, is a perfect scapegoat. It has to be his doing. And sin, as our ever present obstacle in this world, is a perfect explanation as to why God is doing it. They sinned, therefore God punished them.
We see this same human thinking in our Gospel lesson this morning. We see humans trying to do what we still do today – blaming tragedy on God’s wrath for sinful behavior. In the first verse of Luke, chapter 13, we’re told of a tragedy in which some Galileans were seemingly slaughtered. And in the 4th verse, we’re told of a tragedy in which some died when a tower fell on them. The text hints that the people believed these tragedies to be acts of God falling upon people who were very sinful and perhaps were unrepentant of their sins.
But in this text, Jesus squashes those thoughts. He asks the people "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”…. “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” And his answer to both questions was No! “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
We are told quite specifically from Jesus that God not did kill these people, and these people were no worse of sinners than those listening to Jesus speak. These people were no worse sinners than the rest of us are. Jesus pulls us away from the tragedy that hit these people, and pulls us away from asking “why did this happen.” He pulls us away from our assumptions that these people have suffered because they’re sinners.
And he pulls us away from our assumptions that these people must have been worse sinners than we are. He pulls us away from all that because that is not where our focus should be. When we begin to believe that tragedy strikes one group of people because of their sin, it is easy for us to believe that because we have not been struck down, we’re somehow better than they were.
Instead of allowing us the chance to believe that we are somehow better people, Jesus says No. They did not suffer because they are more sinful. But he continues by saying that each of us will suffer if we don’t repent.
This is a frightening concept. On the surface, it sounds like a very dire warning – a fear-based reason to drop to our knees in front of God and beg for mercy. A fear-based reason to drag ourselves to church every Sunday, and pray, and read scripture. And this fear is compounded when we hear the story of the fig tree that isn’t doing what it is supposed to do.
The vineyard owner wants to get rid of it – uproot it. And because of our tendency to see God as one who strikes down those who don’t do what they’re supposed to do, we tend to put him in the role of the vineyard owner.
This is not the case. Jesus isn’t seeking to scare us into the pews with this story of the fig tree. Instead, he is offering us hope and promise, and the truth of who God truly is.
God is not the vineyard owner who wants to uproot the unproductive fig tree. God is the gardener… giving us mercy and another chance to repent. And he is giving us so much more than that. He is not saying “repent, or I’m done with you.” Instead, he promises to be there with us, giving us what we need to grow. He is promising not to just leave us alone in figuring out how to do what we should be doing, but instead he is promising to nourish us every step of the way.
And yet we still come back to that one word – Repent. Repent or perish. We’re still left with that frightening concept that Ok, great… God is nourishing us and giving us mercy… but we must repent or we will perish. And in the parable of the fig tree, we are told we only have a limited time to do so. This is a very frightening thought.
But, when we look at what repentance means, we see that the dire-warning we’re given isn’t so frightening at all. Instead, it is a comforting promise and a tool which brings us closer in our relationship with God and with others.
Repentance is not simply saying “I’m sorry” and then going back to the same life you’ve been leading. It is not simply saying “I screwed up” and then going back to screwing up again. Yes, of course as humans, we will still make mistakes. And we will probably still make the same mistakes we have already repented for.
Repentance does not mean we’re not going to still make poor decisions, or that we’re not going to still sin. What it does mean is that we recognize our own sinfulness, and – with the grace and love of God – we follow that compass which always points towards him.
Repentance is not simply words. It is a change in our hearts. It is a renewal of our spirit to follow God. It is seeing tragedy strike and not assuming “That happened because they were worse sinners than I am”. It is seeing tragedy and not asking or attempting to answer the question “Why did God do this?”
Repentance is understanding that I am a sinner. I have done wrong. I have not done as God desires. I have followed my own desires. And I am truly sorry, and will seek God. I will follow that compass which always points towards God. Seeking God – following that compass – means I will get out of the way and let God get me back on the correct path.
In our 1 Corinthians text, Paul says “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
This text shows us where our compass is pointing. It is pointing towards God. It does not say God is the one testing us. It does not place blame on God or the people enduring suffering. It doesn’t place blame at all, but instead assures us that we can get through all hardship with the strength of God… by asking God which direction he wants us to go…. By showing us where we can find God… And by letting God lead us there.
And where exactly is God? Where is that compass pointing? He is not causing tragedy and suffering – Instead, he is there within the tragedy and suffering, just as he was there with the injured and the loved ones of those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attack. Just as he was there with the injured and the loved ones of those who died at Sandy Hook.
He is there digging around the fig tree and providing the nourishment that tree needs.
He is there suffering with the sick and the injured; with those who’ve lost loved ones or are painstakingly caring for the disabled and sick.
He is there suffering with the poor and the broken hearted; the abused and persecuted.
And this is where each of us should be, and through repentance and the comfort of knowing we have forgiveness and are God’s children, this is where we find ourselves – this is where God leads us – right there beside him, helping those who need us. Suffering alongside those who need strength. Through repentance and forgiveness, we find ourselves equipped with the tools God has already given us to endure – God’s grace, strength, love and mercy.